Truth be told, Mary Stallings is just a little bit tired of being called "the best jazz vocalist you've never heard of."
"It's flattering in a way," she says, "but I hope I'm not so much a secret anymore, especially after the last two albums."
The new, ballad-heavy Don't Look Back and 2010's Dream have garnered rave reviews. Stallings will perform selections from both, plus other highlights from her songbook, when she headlines the Isthmus Jazz Festival in a free performance at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, June 2, at 8 p.m.
It will be the last performance before the historic theater - like Stallings, born in 1939 - goes dark for two years for an extensive renovation.
Stallings sings in a classic, swinging style, with pinpoint phrasing and a touch of the blues. She grew up in a large musical family in San Francisco, where she still lives. She recorded a gospel 78 in the early 1950s as "Little Miss Mary Stallings" - indeed, her gospel roots are still evident in her mature sound. She became a mainstay in Bay Area nightclubs while still in high school, performing with such legends as Ben Webster and Louis Jordan.
Stallings made her jazz recording debut in 1961, on Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings, and spent the next decade on stage with more legends, including Earl "Fatha" Hines and Cannonball Adderley. She did several West Coast tours with bebop giant Dizzy Gillespie, including the trumpeter's noted 1965 performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival; sang duets in a Nevada residency with Billy Eckstine; and toured internationally with Count Basie from 1969 to 1972.
And then she walked away, staying home to raise her daughter, R&B singer Adriana Evans, and design children's clothes.
For a woman who had resolved to be a singer while still a little girl, it was quite a step. "Things don't always go as you plan them to do," Stallings says. "I felt I was finished, I really did. But looking back, I was finding myself as a human being."
It was Gillespie who brought her back professionally, convincing her to come on a South American tour. By the late 1980s, she was a singer once again.
"I'm so glad that whatever spell I was going through passed. Music is my calling and I love it." The hiatus, she says, had made her a better singer - more emotionally open, with less on-the-road wear and tear.
Stallings began phase two of her recording career in 1994, releasing five highly acclaimed albums in five years, with another four albums since. It was her 2001 release, Live at the Village Vanguard, that prompted the New York Times to declare that "[p]erhaps the best jazz singer singing today is a woman almost everybody seems to have missed."
They certainly know about her in Prague, where her Christmas concert last December - the first jazz ever in the historic National Theatre - became a celebration of Czech President Vaclav Havel on the day of his funeral.
"It was incredible, almost a spiritual high," she recalls. Stallings was only booked for a one-hour set; in the emotion of the moment, she stood and sang for two. "I didn't realize I had that much material," she laughs, "but it turned out just perfect. People were so grateful."
"What really tore it up," she says, was her version of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," which she hadn't sung since recording it in memory of her younger sister for her 1996 album Spectrum. "Somehow I got through it, and it brought the house down."
"Open your heart and listen and the universe will guide you to where you're supposed to be," Stallings says, "and I was meant to be there at that time."